The myth of the neutral accent
by Lykkefry Bonde
When I was younger, my family and I would go to Germany to buy cheap candy. While filling ourselves to the brim with sugar, calculating the Danish price from the German was a challenging math problem for a seven-year-old–you had to multiply by four to go from D-Marks to Kroners. I remember in the midst of my multiplication frenzy feeling sorry for the German children who always had to multiply by four in order to know the price of anything. I had similar thoughts about how it must suck for people who speak English and always have to watch films with subtitles. Needless to say, my eyes were opened to the multiplicity of cultures, languages and realities when I was introduced to the English language as a 10-year-old.
Similar to my thoughts on currency, I had always assumed that the Danish language was the basis of reality, and that all languages worked in the same manner as Danish. I remember my first day in English class chanting “I am / You are / He, She, It is / We are / You are / They are,” not knowing what in the world I was doing or why. I thought for a while that the chant was a traditional British children’s song. Verbs in Danish do not change depending on who does the act, so the conjugation of English verbs confused me. Only much later did I start to wrap my head around the different ways that languages operate, something I wish I had learned earlier. Due to their foreignness to Danish, I did not understand the different pronunciations and ideas which made me dislike the subject.
I often hear the opinion that “Scandinavians are so good at speaking English!” Yes, this is true. From my perspective, the sole reason for this is that Danish youth are either gamers or “Sex and the City” fanatics. Since I had interests other than video games and American TV shows as an early teenager, I sort of missed that boat. My lack of English abilities came so far that my eighth grade teacher claimed that I would never be able to speak the language properly.
Fortunately, my limited language abilities did not stop me when I got the opportunity to go to Waterford Kamhlaba, a United World College (UWC) school, in Swaziland, South Africa.
The subjects that challenged my English abilities the most at Waterford Kamhlaba were anthropology, math and biology. In my Danish high school, I focused most of my effort on the sciences, so I was confident I would ace them in Swaziland, too. This was not the case. Although many words are the same in both English and Danish, like “respiration” and “photosynthesis,” most were different. I had no clue about words like “vaporizing,” “abdomen” or “terminal buds.” In my two years at Waterford, we were graded on a scale from one to seven. I received every single one of those grades. I have took a couple of tests that I cannot, to this day, tell you what they were about.
This is not a unique experience for international students. My good friend Leandro Montes was raised in Uruguay and went to a UWC school in Singapore. He remembers his first day at his new school; he wanted to ask for a sheet of paper but confused the “ee” and “i” sound and instead exclaimed: “Can I take a shit?”
It was intimidating for me to start in a school without being proficient in the language spoken, because I had no idea whether or not I would succeed. My accent became a touchy subject. I considered it proof of my inability to speak English properly and every time anyone mentioned it, it hurt me inside. When someone brought up my accent, I became defensive. Often I was misunderstood in class and had no means of explaining myself, and sometimes, I would feel so frustrated I would cry. Mispronouncing words was also difficult to handle, both for me and my classmates. Mispronunciations are often funny; it is hard for people not to laugh, but I took it personally, because it reminded me of my potential for failure.
Despite my fear of failure, I finished my high school degree and was off to Colorado College. I left Waterford with more confidence in my English abilities and a changing relationship with my accent.
At CC, I went from being ashamed to being fond of the way I spoke. First, since there is an overwhelmingly popular notion that American accents are “neutral,” I needed to rebel against this idea to prove it wrong. Often, I am asked, “So Lykke, you have been in the States for so long, why don’t you get a more neutral accent?” In response to this question, I smile, write their name in my mental notebook of douchebags (same procedure as when people ask whether they can call me something shorter than “Lykke”), and respond, “What do you mean by a ‘neutral’ accent?” “[Mumbling] Err, you know, American.” At this point, the given person usually–at least superficially–understands the nonsense of their question and realizes that their Boston accent is, in fact, an accent. To a certain extent, I deliberately keep my accent as an attempt to challenge the idea of American supremacy.
In addition to reminding Americans that their nation is not the center of the universe (something everyone eventually has to face, though it takes smaller nations less time to realize it), my accent also serves as a mechanism that I use to claim my foreign identity. I am white, blond and have blue eyes. I am easily mistaken for an American, at least more easily than I pass as a Swazi. Yet when I open my mouth, all possible Americanness disappears, and I verify my foreignness. I find this liberating. I am from a country where the vast majority of people look and speak as I do and share the same history as me—at least, so we think. This means that there are certain expectations as to how one ought to act. It is difficult to find excuses for why one does not necessarily act the expected way, particularly outside of the bigger cities. Speaking with my accent at Colorado College gives me the freedom to be exactly the person I want to be. My accent serves as the ultimate ticket to freedom. Because I pronounce each word I utter in an unfamiliar way, people understand that, and no matter how hard they try, they cannot place me in a social box. And it feels great.
Denmark is a good place to be from when you are out in the world. Most people associate Denmark with being, statistically, the happiest country in the world, a wealthy socialist (but not too socialist) state populated by good-looking, skinny blond people who produce quality TV shows and films. As a bonus, we also kissed America’s ass by participating in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, though nobodyseems to know. What’s not to love?
As a native of such an idealized country, I wonder whether the freedom I feel is because I am an international student in general, or because I am perceived as an adventurous Northern European who is not much of a threat to the U.S.—not even the Tea Party would kick me out.
Speaking to Naili Ding and Jiameng Li, two CC first-years from China, gives me the impression that the origin of one’s accent determines the amount of freedom it gives the speaker. Because Chinese and English are only distantly related, both linguistically and culturally, Naili says that sometimes when he translates directly from Chinese the logic of the sentence—not necessarily the syntax—is different from English logic. This makes it difficult for English speakers to understand, and they do not always take the time to attempt to comprehend this different logic. Jiameng elaborates, saying that because there are many Chinese students at CC, the student body’s interest in the people, language and culture of China is significantly weaker than in that of an underrepresented European country like Denmark. It seems that you can gain the most symbolic capital from your accent if your language and culture originates from a “first-world” country, making you both relatable and, somehow, mysterious and underrepresented. In short, you must be exotic but not overwhelmingly so.
Having a “first-world” accent is not what provides you with social status. Rather, it is about whether this accent is white or not. Minorities in the United States suffer because they do not sound “white” enough. A “white” accent seems to be the only “acceptable” accent. It is therefore not about the wealth or development of the country in which your accent originates, but how closely tied it is to the white race.
I happen to qualify for white privilege, and I understand how much easier it makes my world. At the same time, I am sickened by the thought that I only can enjoy this at the expense of so many non-whites. But does it have to be that way? Why do I have to enjoy something at someone’s expense? Isn’t it possible for all of us to be seen as who we are, regardless of race, ethnicity and accents? Even the person who fits stereotypes and pre-established social categories perfectly has lived a life and has an identity that you never will be able to fully understand. Why don’t we make an effort to see this person beneath all the social labels? Only by allowing an individual to be an individual will we actually be able to listen to each other carefully and potentially reach a consensus beneficial to all.